The Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City is located off Route 5 in Southern Maryland, less than a two hour drive from Washington. For directions and other information, check the website,
The Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City is located off Route 5 in Southern Maryland, less than a two hour drive from Washington. For directions and other information, check the website,
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Part of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, the idea of freedom of religion is part of the fabric of our democracy.

But few Americans know that religious freedom began in the future United States more than 150 years earlier, in the colony of Maryland. And today, a monument to Maryland's status as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States exists in the form of a recently reconstructed Catholic chapel in St. Mary's City. That historic brick chapel was unlocked this past fall, and the building stands today as a monument to religious freedom.

"Liberty of conscience and its first application as a principal of government occurred in Maryland with its founding in 1634," said Dr. Henry Miller, director of research and Maryland Heritage Scholar at Historic St. Mary's City.

The historian noted that many people connect the idea of religious freedom to the Pilgrims, who he said actually only favored religious freedom for themselves, or to Roger Williams of Rhode Island, who did not include Catholics in his concept of religious liberty.

Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, was an English lord and convert to Catholicism who founded the Maryland colony in 1634.

"Lord Baltimore resolutely defended, despite immense obstacles, the principal of liberty of conscience as a formal policy of government (in the Maryland colony) and as a characteristic of the new society he was creating," said Dr. Miller. "This idea of freedom of belief is something really critical. To achieve that, he wisely understood that you could not have an official state religion that all would be forced to adhere to."

The idea of freedom of conscience in the Maryland colony went against the grain of "the intellectual current of that age," the historian said. "At the time, there was a very strong belief that you could not have a prosperous and peaceful society unless you had uniformity of religion linked to the ruler, i.e., the king."
An early wood chapel for Catholic worship in St. Mary's City may have burned down during a rebellion in the colony in 1645. In about 1667, the Jesuits build a brick chapel in Maryland's first capital, which stood as a sign of the religious freedom in the colony which had been inscribed in Maryland's original charter and codified in the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649.

From the foundation, researchers have found that the chapel was about 54 feet long, and they estimate it was about 25 feet tall and stood as a dramatic monument of faith in the Maryland countryside.

"This was the first major brick building constructed in Maryland," said Dr. Miller. The brick chapel with its thick foundation was not a temporary structure. Rather, its size and construction indicated "the Catholic Church was firmly planted in the soil of Maryland... It is a freestanding Catholic church, that could only have been accomplished because of the policy of liberty of conscience that Maryland adhered to."

Perhaps fittingly, the brick chapel was built on the opposite side of St. Mary's City from the State House, a tangible sign of separation of church and state.

But in 1704, by order of the royal governor, the sheriff of St. Mary's County locked the doors of the brick chapel, which was later dismantled, brick by brick. Catholics at the time could no longer worship in public, in a colony that had been founded on the principle of religious freedom.

During a dramatic ceremony in September 2009, the county's current sheriff, Tim Cameron, unlocked the doors of the rebuilt Brick Chapel, and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl helped open the doors. In a later column, the archbishop noted that the unlocking of the doors "was a reminder that we are a free people and among the rights we celebrate are freedom of conscience and freedom of worship."

The archbishop noted that the fragility of religious freedom was underscored in the original chapel's locking, and it can also be seen today in legislative efforts across the United States that have undermined people's religious freedom. Archdiocesan officials testified that the recent law establishing same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia did not include adequate protections for individuals and institutions who, as a matter of conscience, oppose redefining marriage.

The chapel field at St. Mary's City was used as farmland for generations, but this past century, the chapel's foundation was re-discovered, and community members led an effort to rebuild the historic chapel as a monument to faith and religious freedom. Scholars used historic detective work in designing the rebuilt chapel on the original foundation, based on archaeological evidence uncovered at the site, and on what Jesuit mission churches looked like in the 17th century.

At the unlocking ceremony, speakers noted that the site of the chapel and the surrounding field is on "holy ground," and it contains the graves of perhaps hundreds of Maryland's early Catholics, including settlers who came over on the Ark and the Dove in 1634. Also at the site, three rare lead coffins were discovered, and found to be the final resting place for members of the Calvert family.

"They (the early colonists) risked everything to establish a new life in America, which immigrant groups since then have endured," said Dr. Miller. "They were the first to endeavor to create a society in which religious belief would be a matter of individual conscience, not dictated by the government or by those in power."

Near the chapel, a temporary pavilion is being constructed, and organizers hope that it will open this fall. The visitors' center will include panels explaining the chapel's history and importance.

Historians are working on plans for the chapel's interior, researching the design of the tabernacle, altar and pulpit. A 17th century tabernacle once owned by the Carrolls - a noted Catholic family in Maryland that included Archbishop John Carroll, the nation's first Catholic bishop, and Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence - is now on display at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. According to family legend, that was once the tabernacle for the chapel at St. Mary's City.

Dr. Miller has traveled throughout Europe, collecting data on what the chapel's interior would have looked like, based on Jesuit churches built in that time period. "This is really trying to find every clue that will help us solve the mystery of what this, the first major church in English America, looked like," he said. Perhaps by 2011 or 2012, the rebuilt chapel's interior may be furnished, he said.

"We hope that all persons, regardless of religious belief, can come to the chapel, learn about early Maryland and its key contributions, and better understand how the struggle for religious freedom has been a vital element of the American story from the beginning," said Dr. Miller.

Today, Baltimore is known as Maryland's largest city, but the historian hopes that people will come to know Lord Baltimore as a man of integrity who faced struggles in his own life, including the loss of his property during a civil war in England, but who held fast to the ideal of liberty and conscience.

Dr. Miller said that Lord Baltimore was a man "who never abandoned faith or principle."

And the story of the locked and rebuilt brick chapel, he said, offers an enduring lesson for today, about the importance of religious freedom, and not taking that liberty for granted. "Freedoms that are hard won and seemingly enduring, can be lost," the historian said.